26 November 2014

Does Playtime for Cats Reduce Behaviour Problems?

Does few toys and no play equal issues with your cat?

A beautiful Siamese cat plays with a toy - and playtime reduces behaviour problems in cats

A new survey of cat owners by Beth Strickler and Elizabeth Shull investigates how many toys the average cat has, how often their owner plays with them, and whether there is a link with behaviour problems.

Since behaviour problems are a common reason for cats to be surrendered to shelters and so many cats are euthanized every year, it’s important to understand how meeting the behavioural needs of cats can lead to fewer behaviour problems.

Providing toys and opportunities for play is one of the five pillars of a healthy environment for cats, according to the International Society of Feline Medicine and the American Association of Feline Practitioners (Ellis et al 2013).

Play should allow the cat to mimic different aspects of predation. Toys and play are especially important as enrichment for indoor cats. Of the cats in this study, 61% were indoors-only cats who never go outside. The remainder of the cats spent some time indoors and some outdoors.

Each cat had seven toys on average. The most common toy was furry mice, owned by 64% of cats. The other most common toys were catnip toys, balls with bells, stuffed toys, a scratching post, boxes, and balls without bells.

Most of these toys provide opportunities for play and hunting, while the catnip, bells and scratching posts provide sensory stimulation (read more about the best scratching posts from a cat's perspective!). Boxes provide opportunities to explore the environment and we all know that cats love boxes!

Very few cats had some kind of food toy. Only 1% of the cats had a puzzle toy and 0.5% of owners hid food for their cat to find. This is unfortunate because finding food is an important aspect of the predation sequence and yet most cats are fed at set times of the day in a set location. 

One easy solution is to put part of the cat’s food in cup-cake holders and hide it for them to find. Treats can be hidden instead of just given, and kibble can be scattered or thrown. There are also many food puzzle toys for cats on the market that can keep cats occupied for some time.

Play with cats reduces behaviour problems, and boxes make good enrichment - like this sleepy cat that doesn't quite fit in a box

Although some owners only played with their cat once a month, 64% reported playing with their cat twice a day and 17% reported daily play sessions. This is very positive.

Typical durations of play sessions were 5 minutes (33% of owners) or 10 minutes (25%). This is something that could be improved as most cats would probably prefer longer play times.

The majority of owners (78%) had the cat’s toys available all the time. However the authors point out cats can easily become bored; putting some toys away and changing the available items on a regular basis would be more interesting for the cats.

The authors say, “Rotation of toys, provision of novel items, and increasing play bouts duration to 15-30 minutes should be recommended to cat owners to increase the enrichment value of toys and play.”

In a multi-cat household, it’s important that enrichment items are provided in different locations to ensure that every cat has access (Ellis et al 2013).

Even though the cats were selected because they went to the vet for a reason other than behaviour, in fact 61% of the cats were said to have one of six common behaviour problems. Only 54% of owners had mentioned the problem to their vet.

This suggests many owners do not realize that vets can provide advice on behavioural issues, although it may also be they did not feel the need to do anything about it. Vets could explicitly ask cat owners about behaviour problems to make sure they are not missed.

The two most common behaviour problems were aggression towards the owner (36%) and inappropriate urination (24%). It is especially concerning if inappropriate urination is not mentioned to the vet as there are potential veterinary causes and many options for treatment and management. More problems were reported in male cats, particularly inappropriate urination, and male cats also spent more time outdoors.

The number of toys the cat had and how often the owner played with them were not related to behaviour problems. However, fewer problems were reported by owners who played with their cat for at least 5 minutes at a time compared to those who only played for 1 minute.

The authors say, “It may be that longer play bouts satisfy the cat’s play needs and decrease behaviour problems.” However they point out that since the data is correlational and does not prove causation, further research is needed.

277 cats took part in the survey. Their owners were recruited after taking the cat to the vet for a problem other than behaviour. The average age of the cats was 5, but ranged from 6-week old kittens to 18 years old. The average number of cats per household was 2 and there were equal numbers of male and female cats. 81% were neutered. 

This is a valuable study that makes useful recommendations. All the owners provided cat toys and opportunities for play. Feline enrichment could be improved by providing a wider variety of play types including food hiding/puzzle toys, and by increasing the length of play sessions.

The beautiful thing is that a cat toy can be as simple as a cardboard box, a piece of string, or a treat hidden in a tube.

How many toys does your cat have and which is their favourite?

You might also like: Enrichment tips for cats (that many people miss) and your cat would like food puzzle toys

Ellis, S., Rodan, I., Carney, H., Heath, S., Rochlitz, I., Shearburn, L., Sundahl, E., & Westropp, J. (2013). AAFP and ISFM Feline Environmental Needs Guidelines Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 15 (3), 219-230 DOI: 10.1177/1098612X13477537  
Strickler, B., & Shull, E. (2014). An owner survey of toys, activities, and behavior problems in indoor cats Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 9 (5), 207-214 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2014.06.005
Photos: XSeon (top) and Nataliya Kuznetsova (Shutterstock.com).

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19 November 2014

Are Dogs Good for Our Health?

We’re used to reading that they are, but it’s more complicated than you think.

A young woman and her dog play with a stick in the park
Photo: legenda / Shutterstock

A new study by González Ramírez and Landero Hernández in Mexico compares dog-owners with non-dog-owners to find out whether or not dogs are beneficial to people’s health and well-being. They wanted to improve on the design of many previous studies by comparing two groups of people who were similar except for the fact that some owned dogs and some did not.

There are several reasons why pets might be good for us. It could be that we have an instinctive bond with nature, and so the company of animals lowers stress and makes us feel better. This is the biophilia hypothesis, which also says we have an especial liking for baby-faced animals, which has an evolutionary advantage. An alternative idea is that animals provide social support themselves and also encourage interactions with other people, thus making us less lonely and helping us to have better mental health.

602 people took part and answered a set of questions including standardized measures of perceived life satisfaction, health, happiness and stress. The dog-owners completed an extra set of questions about their relationship with the dog. The two groups of participants were matched in terms of age, gender, level of education, marital status, whether or not they had children, and the proportion that had a chronic health condition. 

The results are very interesting because they show that the groups differ in some ways, but are similar in others. The people who had dogs had better scores on measures of stress, mental health and general health.  But the two groups did not differ in terms of how happy they are, their satisfaction with life, or in some other aspects of their physical health.

The scientists say their results support the biophilia hypothesis that interactions with animals reduce stress and anxiety. Because the two groups were the same on measures of happiness and satisfaction with life, the social support hypothesis is not supported by these results. 

One thing that may have influenced the results is that about two-thirds of the dogs lived in the yard or garage. Just under half of the dog-owners said their dog was a member of the family (47%), a third that it was a pet (36%) and 12% described their dog as a watch-dog. Only a third of the dogs slept in the house at night (7% in the owner’s bed, 9% in the bedroom and 15% elsewhere in the house). The results may be different for people whose dogs live in the house, as they may have a closer relationship with their dog.

Hal Herzog says people are more aware of research that finds pets are good for our health than that with negative findings – in part because of publication biases towards significant results, and in part because the media is more likely to pick up the positive stories. If you really want to know if owning a pet makes a difference to people’s health then you have to do a randomized controlled trial, he says, the same as you would for a new drug. This is obviously tricky in real life, and impossible to do ‘blind’ since people would know if they had a pet or not. 

Although this study is not a randomized controlled trial, it is an improvement on many other studies because the two groups of participants were matched on some important variables. The results show a correlation and do not prove causality. For example, people’s health may be a factor in their decision as to whether or not to get a dog.

This study found that although dog owners perceived themselves to be healthier than those without dogs, there was no difference in happiness. This will be a surprise to many animal lovers, but it shows that the relationship between people and animals cannot easily be generalized.

Do you think owning a pet, or not owning a pet, influences your health and happiness?

González Ramírez, M., & Landero Hernández, R. (2014). Benefits of dog ownership: Comparative study of equivalent samples Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 9 (6), 311-315 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2014.08.002  
Herzog, H. (2011). The Impact of Pets on Human Health and Psychological Well-Being: Fact, Fiction, or Hypothesis? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20 (4), 236-239 DOI: 10.1177/0963721411415220

You might also like:
Do Children Prefer Baby-Faced Animals?
What Encourages People to Walk Their Dog?
Do Dogs With Baby Expressions Get Adopted Sooner, and What Does It Say About Domestication?


12 November 2014

Should Pets be Included in Emergency Planning?

And can they help vulnerable people be more resilient?

An elderly woman holding her black and white cat
Photo: Nika Art / Shutterstock
A new paper by Thompson et al (2014) in Australia considers how pets can be incorporated into planning for emergencies such as earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and forest fires. It can quite literally be a matter of life and death. For example, they say, “over 8% of flood-related fatalities in Australia from 1788 to September 1996 resulted from people’s attempts to save ‘stock, property or pets’ – even when the animal or pet was not their own.” 

People sometimes risk their lives in an emergency because they do not want to leave their pets behind. If someone refuses to evacuate because they cannot bring their dog or cat, their life may be at risk, as well as the lives of emergency responders. It’s not just pets – sometimes people are motivated to risk their own lives to try and protect farm animals or wildlife.

The question posed by the paper is, given we know animals are a risk factor in an emergency, is it possible instead for animals to play a protective role? For example, if someone is reluctant to plan for emergencies, would they do so for the pets, if not for themselves? We already know that pets can help vulnerable people. For example, in recent research by Lem et al (2013), homeless individuals talked about how they were motivated to find housing instead of living on the street because it would be better for their dog or cat.

The authors say, “given that more than half the population own pets, there is arguably more risk in not helping people to safely accommodate animals in their emergency plans.” (emphasis: original).

The paper considers the role of pets in the lives of different groups of vulnerable people: Indigenous Australians, seniors, children and youth, culturally and linguistically diverse communities, people with disabilities, homeless people and people with mental health problems. 

The full text includes a detailed description of the role of pets in the lives of these varied groups of people. Pets may play a different role for each group, and even within a group there will be differences, as well as individual differences in vulnerabilities and resilience. Nonetheless, taking these into consideration can improve emergency planning.

An emergency does not break the human-animal bond; it may even make it stronger. For most people, their pets are part of the family. However, many emergency shelters will not take pets. In addition, people who do not have pets themselves may not want animals in a shelter and may not understand why others want them there. 

The authors say, “The most renowned example of a forced separation was witnessed by people around the world as footage of the Hurricane Katrina evacuations recorded a dog named Snowball being torn from the arms of a distraught young boy who was not allowed to bring his pet on a bus.”

Being separated from a pet causes grief because people are attached to their animals. Separation may cause other problems too. Those who rely on a service animal may be unable to get around or perform basic tasks that are needed for independence. Indigenous people who have lost their hunting dogs may struggle to hunt for food. Some vulnerable people will simply be incapacitated by grief. 

So what are the solutions? Animal-related networks, such as assistance dog groups, those who provide pet food and vet care to the homeless, and animal therapy groups, could help provide access to vulnerable people for emergency planners wishing to spread the message about disaster planning. These networks may also be able to help communicate about the need to plan, and what should be done; for example, via face-to-face communication rather than written materials.

Just as pets can help vulnerable people cope with the challenges of daily life, they may also help them recover after an emergency. And the authors say another issue is that emergency responders may have to cope with the sight of sick or dying animals, as well as the human cost of a disaster. They say, “Avoiding these disturbing experiences, and maximizing the value of pets and other animals in improving the recovery of vulnerable people after disasters is a compelling rationale for ensuring that all measures are taken to ensure that pets as well as people survive natural disasters.”

The full paper is valuable reading for anyone involved in emergency planning. For individuals, it’s a reminder to consider pets in thinking about natural disasters. For example, if you live in an area that might be affected by earthquake, do you have a few days’ supplies of food and water for your pets? Is your pet crate-trained in case you ever need to evacuate? And what should be done to help vulnerable people in your community, whether via a community organization or simply some neighbours that you keep an eye on?

Have you given much thought to how you could help your pets in a natural disaster?

Lem, M.,, Coe, J.B.,, Haley, D.B.,, Stone, E.,, & O'Grady, W. (2013). Effects of companion animal ownership among Canadian street-involved youth: A qualitative analysis Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, 40 (4), 285-304  
Thompson, K., Every, D., Rainbird, S., Cornell, V., Smith, B., & Trigg, J. (2014). No Pet or Their Person Left Behind: Increasing the Disaster Resilience of Vulnerable Groups through Animal Attachment, Activities and Networks Animals, 4 (2), 214-240 DOI: 10.3390/ani4020214

05 November 2014

How Many Dogs is Enough for Canine Science?

And does it matter which dogs they are?

Seven happy Australian Shepherd dogs - ever wondered how scientists decide how many dogs take part in a study?
Photo: Julia Remezova / Shutterstock

The number of dogs that take part in each research study is variable. Often, the sample size is small, because of the difficulty of recruiting dogs and their owners. And while scientists know how many are needed for statistical analysis, there are other things to take into account too.

For example, breed may or may not be relevant. If only ten dogs take part in a study and they are all Australian Shepherds, the results may not be the same as if they were all Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. 

There are 180 breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club. Studies can’t possibly include them all, and then there are mixed breeds to consider too.  Some researchers get round this by grouping dogs according to breed type (e.g. toy, working), and trying to include some of each. Scientific papers usually report the breed(s) of dog that took part, along with other variables that could potentially influence results, such as whether or not the dogs were neutered/spayed, their age and gender. 

Even within a breed, there may be differences in behaviour, as Lofgren et al’s recent study of show line and working line Labrador Retrievers found. (Incidentally, this study did a nice job of taking into account the fact that many pedigree dogs are related to each other). 

Another consideration is whether the study requires interaction with strangers (i.e. experimenters), and training to teach the dog to operate some equipment or perform a particular behaviour. Dogs that are able to complete the training within the timescale of the study may not be typical of all dogs. There are often some drop-outs and some dogs that are too fearful to pass initial screening. 

The tasks can be complicated. For example, in McGowan et al’s (2014) brilliant study of the Eureka! effect, dogs were trained to perform specific actions with pieces of equipment, such as pressing a dog piano with a paw or pushing a box off a stack.  And in Berns et al’s (2012; 2014) ground-breaking MRI studies awake dogs voluntarily keep still during scans. The MRI dogs are highly-trained by definition, since they must take part in months of extensive training to be able to do the study. 

In other cases, dogs are surveyed in an environment that is natural to them, such as Ottenheimer Carrier et al’s research on dog parks, or Westgarth et al’s (2010) observations of dog walks. Here, they are studied when going about their normal daily life and engaging in normal behaviours.

Seven Cavalier King Charles Spaniels - is it a good sample for canine science?
Photo: Lenkadan / Shutterstock

Even though pet dogs are the focus of most research, other kinds of dogs are studied too, such as Savvides (2013) on street dogs in Bangkok. Then there are assistance dogs, therapy dogs, medical alert dogs (such as diabetes alert dogs (Rooney, Morant & Guest 2013)) and working dogs. Even with working dogs, there are striking differences: some live with their handler, while others live in kennels; assistance dogs must be used to people and an urban environment, sheepdogs not so much.

If we want to be able to say something about dogs in general, then all kinds of dogs need to take part in research. 

It’s different again for research on cats, since they are rarely accustomed to going places with their owners (except, perhaps, to the vet). An experiment in a lab will only be suitable for a special kind of pet cat. 

Even studies at the cat’s home will not work for all cats – most people know of a cat that runs and hides under the bed if someone new comes to the house.

The other thing to bear in mind is that our own experience with pets may not be the same as other’s. For example, some people take their dog for a walk every day, but others rarely if ever walk their dog (see e.g. Westgarth, Christley and Christian 2014). If we want to know about dogs and cats in general, all of these differences in lifestyle must be taken into account. 

So it’s not just a question of how many dogs (or cats) take part in a study, but also whether they are the right kind of dogs and cats. There are many things to balance when designing research. This is why so often we have to say ‘more research is needed’, as no one study can achieve the perfect design on all fronts. 

Do you think your dog or cat would like to take part in a research study?

Berns, G., Brooks, A., & Spivak, M. (2014). Scent of the familiar: An fMRI study of canine brain responses to familiar and unfamiliar human and dog odors Behavioural Processes DOI: 10.1016/j.beproc.2014.02.011
Berns, G., Brooks, A., & Spivak, M. (2012). Functional MRI in Awake Unrestrained Dogs SSRN Electronic Journal DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.2047085  
Lofgren, S., Wiener, P., Blott, S., Sanchez-Molano, E., Woolliams, J., Clements, D., & Haskell, M. (2014). Management and personality in Labrador Retriever dogs Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 156, 44-53 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2014.04.006  
McGowan, R., Rehn, T., Norling, Y., & Keeling, L. (2013). Positive affect and learning: exploring the “Eureka Effect” in dogs Animal Cognition, 17 (3), 577-587 DOI: 10.1007/s10071-013-0688-x  
Ottenheimer Carrier, L., Cyr, A., Anderson, R., & Walsh, C. (2013). Exploring the dog park: Relationships between social behaviours, personality and cortisol in companion dogs Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 146 (1-4), 96-106 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2013.04.002  
Rooney NJ, Morant S, & Guest C (2013). Investigation into the value of trained glycaemia alert dogs to clients with type I diabetes. PloS one, 8 (8) PMID: 23950905  
Savvides, N. (2013). Living with dogs: Alternative animal practices in Bangkok, Thailand Animal Studies Journal, 2 (2), 28-50  
Westgarth, C., Christley, R., & Christian, H. (2014). How might we increase physical activity through dog walking?: A comprehensive review of dog walking correlates International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 11 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1479-5868-11-83  
Westgarth, C., Christley, R., Pinchbeck, G., Gaskell, R., Dawson, S., & Bradshaw, J. (2010). Dog behaviour on walks and the effect of use of the leash Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 125 (1-2), 38-46 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2010.03.007

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